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The American Journal of Semiotics

Volume 35, Issue 3/4, 2019

Steven Skaggs
Pages 277-307

The Semiotics of Visual Identity

Visual identity systems allow a visual object to stand for, and provide suggestive expression of, a host. The primary graphic element in a visual identity system is the logo. In three sections, this article explores inportant semiotic mechanisms by which logos perform the work of identifying. The first section points to the difference between basic visual differentiation (boundary coherence) and affective/cognitive reference (semantic coherence). It makes a distinction between two kinds of reference that occur simultaneously in logos: (1) an immediate referencing of the host entity (the entity for which identification is sought), and (2), indirect, reference that is often metaphoric in character. The second section offers a four-part classification scheme for logos based upon a Peircean icon/index/symbol division with the addition of an axis of syntactical detail. A “hidden” class of logo is predicted by this Peircean framework; examples are identified and this class is named “gesturegraphs”. It is argued that this four-part classification scheme is both semiotically necessary and sufficient. Any further classes of logos can be considered subclasses within the four semiotic factors proposed. These classes are not judged to be discrete, but rather to afford blended and combinatorial situations. The rhetorical tropes of metonym and metaphor are discussed in terms of their value to the pictographic mode of logo design. Finally, in the third section of the article, genre is defined as the coherence of stylistic features in relation to the sector of the host’s activity. Two case studies are given as examples of how genre influences the semantical context of logos.

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